Tempest in a sippy cup? Some might think so. But as one PR expert put it,”the story was too good.” When a Michigan Applebee’s restaurant mistakenly served a pre-mixed margarita to a 15-month-old boy, the chain found itself battling a flood of critical coverage and a reputation threat.
The media and blogosphere was stirred up even more after a similar incident at a Florida Olive Garden in which a toddler was given alcoholic sangria instead of juice. And it’s not the first time alcohol has mistakenly ended up in a child’s cup.
A careful reading of news accounts of the Applebee’s incident raises some doubts about what really happened. Reports that the toddler was rushed to the hospital with a blood alcohol level of .10 have been contradicted by later accounts. In the wake of the (inevitable) lawsuit brought by the child’s parents, it crossed some minds that the incident might have been a hoax. It wouldn’t be the first time a customer tried to cash in by slapping a big-name chain with a juicy damages claim. (Remember the Wendy’s finger-in-the-chili case?)
But there’s no way to know what really happened, and if you’re Applebee’s, you have no choice but to respond with utmost seriousness. And it did, releasing a statement about its investigation, an apology, and a social media campaign right out of the rapid-response crisis playbook making use of Facebook, Twitter, and its corporate website. Most importantly, it announced that its policy for all restaurants would be to pour beverages directly from single-serve containers at the table. Likewise, Olive Garden pledged to make its sangria only when ordered, rather than stored premixed.
The response of each chain was supported by a statement from the National Restaurant Association that expressed industry concern, while trying to put the incidents in perspective as one (or two) in a million. And that’s what those trade association dues are for, folks.
Fortunately, the toddler is fine. But as an example of crisis handling, the entire incident is a lesson in just how quickly the story can get away from you. And that’s sobering.